Drew: I love mysteries. Not just detective stories — I love even the smallest mysteries that happen in a narrative. Who is that? What is their relationship to the other characters? I find it satisfying when those little mysteries resolve. My girlfriend, on the other hand, has what could be fairly described as anxiety over those little mysteries — she’s always convinced she’s somehow missed the explanation for what’s going on. I think, when you get down to it, the difference is a matter of faith in the storytelling — it’s unclear because it’s supposed to be unclear. That faith flies out the window when you’re jumping into the middle of a decades-long serialized universe, where I very legitimately might have missed the explanation for what’s going on, giving me the very same anxiety I usually tease my girlfriend over. Usually, conscientious editors keep the memories of those titles fairly myopic, providing notes for anything that took place over a few issues ago, but Fantastic Four has been so historically minded as to shake my faith in Matt Fraction to explain everything to me.
The issue begins with Ben preparing for the last day of his annual “look like a normal person” week. He’s requested to be brought to Yancy Street ca. 1920 in order to prevent the harming of some young woman…but I have no clue who that is, or why Ben has made it his mission to protect her. Is this a matter of Ben’s history, some big, character defining thing that anyone who knows the Fantastic Four should already know? Is it something nobody knows, but we’ll all get an explanation soon enough if we can just keep our pants on? There’s a good chance its the latter, (or at least, that Fraction will explain it like the latter, even if it’s actually the former), but I’ve somehow completely lost faith that I know what’s going on.
Not that it really matters as far as this issue is concerned — Ben is completely sidetracked from his mission by a fight with the Yancy Street Gang, who as of the ’20s are running shakedown operations on local businesses. Ben returns to rocky Thing form just in time for a big showdown with the YSG, and sends them packing — all while giving the residents of Yancy Street the courage to face these thugs in the future. Meanwhile, Franklin and Valeria recount their experiences from issue 5AU (which may or may not write off the whole Age of Ultron event as a dream), which suggests that Ben may have done something to Dr. Doom back when he was just Doctoral Candidate Doom, so the family opts to revisit Doom’s college days to find out what the heck that’s about.
I don’t know if I can put my finger on why Ben’s oblique motives bother me so much — I was willing to roll with the thought that he has some deep, dark secret from his college years, and that he turns back into a human for one week every year — but I can’t help but suspect that this isn’t a mystery to be revealed, but a telling return to a well-worn moment from Ben’s past. Without an explanation (or the accompanying understanding) of what this means to Ben, I can’t invest much emotionally. Instead, Ben’s entire reason for being at this place at this time feels entirely too convenient — especially given how quickly he gives up his own interests in favor of what ends up being the actual conflict of the issue.
And what of that conflict? It’s pretty generic gangster fare, with the added twist of Ben’s own connection to the gang. But is he, really? These fedora-wearing, tommy-gun-carying old-school gangsters are generations removed from the motley group of kids Ben pals around with in the present day. I suppose this could be seen as the point that the Yancy Street Gang turned a corner and became something other than criminals, but again, my ignorance of Fantastic Four history kind of throws up a roadblock here. Have they always been harmless pranksters, or did Ben have an active role in reforming them in his own time? Without more context, this ends up feeling entirely generic.
And that’s the complaint that I keep coming up against with these adventures-of-the-week issues — I like this series when it focuses on the characters, but the actual adventures always feel canned — The Fantastic Four go to Ancient Rome! The Fantastic Four go to Gangland! The Fantastic Four go to College! I suppose my failure to connect with the character work here could be the reason I’m seeing this as overly adventure-focused, but I’m only willing to shoulder so much of the blame — I was interested and game, but this issue refused to engage with my Fantastic Four ignorance.
Patrick, I probably sound more bitter than I mean to, but I think my patience on this series is wearing a little thin. Were you more entertained by Ben’s gang-busting than I was? More importantly, is my anxiety over not knowing what’s going on unfounded, or are you feeling that, too?
Patrick: Yeah, I certainly do feel the weight of the Fantastic Four’s history bogging down this issue. It’s a crummy place to find yourself as a fan, but it’s an even crummier place to find yourself as a critic. Especially because we’re both doing our due diligence as far as this whole “NOW!” thing is concerned. I’m reading FF, New Avengers (featuring Reed Richards), and Age of Ultron (featuring Sue Storm, alternate-timeline Thing and the vision Franklin and Val mention). But I still feel like I’m ill-equipped to talk about Ben Grimm’s adventures in the past.
So I did a little bit of research. The young couple that he takes under his protection once he lands on Yancy Street has a lot in common with Ben’s family growing up, but all the details are just a little bit off, and whatever connections you might think you’re missing out on aren’t actually there. Let’s just take a look at where there are connections. First, Ira’s wife’s name is Petunia – Ben is quick to point out that his “favorite Aunt” had that name too. In truth, his aunt and uncle (Jacob and Petunia) raised him. So it’s like Peter Parker committing himself to protecting someone named May or Ben. There’s also a cultural / religious connection here: Ben’s Jewish, and he grew up in a very Depression Era, Lower East Side, Jewish house-hold. So he recognizes the life and values he grew up with in the Rosenbaums.
But it’s not totally right, and it’s not quite as satisfying as Ben was hoping for. He’s able to fight off a few Yancy Streeters in his human form, and he even spreads a little joy by handing out comic books, but he’s not able to actually succeed in changing Yancy Street until he reverts back to the Thing. Notice how the gray, rainy atmosphere let’s up the instant the rocky monster shouts out:
So I read this as kind of a pastiche of Ben Grimm’s past – one that’s not nearly as satisfying to the character or reader as the good, old fashioned Thing-punching-dudes action. And that’s sort neat, but hanging a story on the idea that some part of it is less satisfying that the reader wants it to be is sort of a cruel way to tell a story, don’t you think?
I do like the mention of Franklin and Valerie’s “dream” from the Age of Ultron issue. Just as we got Caroline Le Fey’s origin story within the Ultron alternate timeline, we’re seeing Franklin utilizing information he got in the alternate timeline and using it in this primary timeline. Damned if I understand exactly how these things connect, but I think we should be reading into the “was it all a dream?” component that Drew mentions. Maybe “dream” is the wrong word – maybe Age of Ultron is a simulation of some kind, or a robotically projected hallucination? Or who knows? The conclusion of that event can’t reveal itself soon enough.
Ben’s kind of the lowest common denominator in this cast. I mean, how can you say no to his raw affectionate enthusiasm? But the elephant in the room is Reed Richard’s on-going lies and recklessness. The series has tried to tap into that head a a few times, to varying degrees of success, but at least then we’re able to engage in more complicated questions of morality, causality, and the cost of genius. I guess what I’m saying is that I prefer when this series is in a thoughtful / reflective mood, and less enamored of its penchant for clobberin’. I won’t go so far as to suggest that Fraction won’t bring this all around for a clever little closed-loop conclusion (like he did with that Blastaar at the end of time thing), but if this is just a one-off adventure, it does lack the emotional weight a story like this needs.
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